I've been trying to explain the magic of 2013's The Last of Us—game developer Naughty Dog's brutalist masterpiece—to my fellow editors at Esquire. I sound like I'm drunkenly reading an entry from The Walking Dead Wiki. Road trip, but make it post-apocalypse. Zombie-like creatures are in the way. A reluctant paternal type takes a child—born with a special gift!—to the place that will save all mankind. That's the gist of The Last of Us, to which HBO said fuck-your-video-game-adaptation-curse, developed it into a TV series, and cleared its coveted Sunday night slot for it to air. Considering the boatloads of money HBO threw at this series, my ready-to-cringe senses were tingling.
If you're a fan of the two The Last of Us games (its sequel released in 2017), or are simply curious about why Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are hamming it up on a press tour together, fear not: HBO's The Last of Us, which debuts January 15, pushes the already-brilliant story beyond its creators' wildest nightmares. It takes smart, strategic liberties with its source material, while still feeling faithful to it—without carrying the damn near morbid obsession of simply being a video game adaptation, like Tom Holland's Uncharted. Really, it's 2023's first great television show.
The Last of Us—which visually, in the best way, watches like a shot-for-shot recreation of the video game—opens with the grizzly Joel (Pascal) and his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna) on the day that shit hits the fan. You see, there's a new pandemic in town: the spread of the cordyceps fungus, which I hate to say is a real thing. Cordyceps infects ants, growing inside their bodies and infecting their brains, to the point of honest-to-god, real-life zombification. You see why this isn't great Esquire water-cooler convo?
In The Last of Us, cordyceps finds a way to turn humans into beastly zombie-mushroom people. This is where showrunner Craig Mazin clearly found an opportunity to freestyle. Whereas we learn about the pandemic mostly through hearsay and CDC posters in the video game, the HBO series uses the imagery of our current pandemic for frights. See: doctors discussing cordyceps' potential for mass extinction. An examination of patient zero, still burned into my brain. Masks. Lots of masks. At times, The Last of Us feels like the first scripted series to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic in a meaningful way, mirroring the confusion and terror of March 2020 in a flooring, fiery pilot episode.
After tragedy strikes for Joel on D-Day, we fast-forward 20 years, where he's living amongst a community of survivors, somewhere in what used to be the Boston area. Joel gets wrapped up in the wheelings and dealings of a rebel faction, called the Fireflies, who ask him to smuggle a young girl named Ellie (Ramsey) across the cordyceps-ridden country. Bolstered by Pascal and Ramsey's chemistry, our leading duo embarks on their journey, which sees Naughty Dog's post-apocalyptic landscape more than satisfyingly realized. In the distance, as Joel and Ellie platform buildings, we see toppled skyscrapers, leaning on each other like books on a shelf. In the immediate vicinity? Nearly every nook and cranny is alive with spores and mushrooms, a damning visual reminder of a toppled world. Aside from a few well-placed moments of improvisation, The Last of Us follows the same twists and turns as the 2013 original—playing like a souped-up rewatch for fans, and a new week-to-week obsession for newcomers. Going from The White Lotus to The Last of Us is certainly its own journey for HBO subscribers, huh? Imagine that crossover.
Loyalists of the video game will probably ask if The Last of Us is even half as harsh as its PlayStation counterpart. For the uninitiated: The Last of Us doesn't have the merriest worldview of the end of civilization. More often than not, really—which my fellow The Last of Us Part II completionists certainly know—the game goes to painstaking lengths to show you its belief that we're all capable of becoming the thing we swear we are not. You can see Joel as a hero, only if you're willing to accept that he's somewhat of a serial murderer. Same goes for most everyone else you meet in this world. The Last of Us has always seemed to say that the end of times will reduce each of us to our extremes—our very worst and, if we're lucky, very best parts.
This actually does feel a little jarring to the rest of popular culture, especially considering that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is playfully hop-skipping through the aftermath of losing half of its own population. In the MCU, survivors are going to support groups! Just tryin' to make an honest living! When everyone finally returns, then they look into the sky for their next savior. The Last of Us will tell you that not only is that savior a fraud—but that they'll take an axe to your skull if you look at them the wrong way.
HBO's The Last of Us nails that sentiment, which damn near lives within the code of the game. If the video game gave you nightmares, prepare not to sleep on Sunday nights this winter. And if the game offered flickering hope for our own burning planet? Well, Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett's surprise storyline—which should firmly be in the conversation for best episode of television in recent memory—might leave you feeling like we'll be all right.
You Might Also Like